South Dade no longer has to wrestle for second place.
Because of slightly decreased school enrollment, Brandon High has been moved down to 2A by the FHSAA, which reevaluates its classifications every two years.
The move down is significant because Brandon is — by far — the most dominant wrestling program in Florida history. Brandon has won 24 state titles, including 13 in a row, and also has 101 individual state championships.
South Dade, which is second in Florida history with eight team titles and 50 individual championships, now becomes the favorite to win it all in 3A.
“[Brandon moving down] is the type of thing that can rejuvenate your career,” said Victor Balmeceda, who has been the Bucs’ coach for all their title runs.
“For my first 16 years, I could preach to my team that we could win state. But for the past four years, I couldn’t even lie to them.”
His Bucs are the last Dade wrestling program to win state, and that happened in 2008. But the Bucs likely would have won state titles in 2011 and 2012, when they finished second to Brandon.
Scout.com ranks South Dade No. 1 this season in Class 3A. Osceola, which finished second to Brandon last season, is ranked second. Osceola also won state in 2009, which was the last season Brandon was not in 3A.
In addition to those two teams, Palm Harbor, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas and North Miami are considered legitimate threats to win state in 3A this season.
“It’s a wide-open race,” Aquinas coach Robert Wimberley said. “[Brandon’s departure] opens things up for four or five teams.”
The Bucs’ optimism starts with Patrick Lugo III, a junior 138-pounder who finished third at state last season. He had a huge offseason, too, becoming an All-American in Greco and Freestyle wrestling based on his performances in national tournaments in North Dakota and Iowa.
“He’s an in-your-face wrestler, tenacious and mean,” Balmeceda said. “He’s the leader of our team. And since he has yet to taste a state title, he is super hungry.”
His younger brother, sophomore Ozzy Lugo, is ranked No.1 in the state at 106 pounds even though he didn’t wrestle on the varsity last season. He also had a big summer. Aside from the Lugos, two other Bucs are ranked No. 1 in the state in their 3A weight class: Justin Ramirez (132) and Isaiah Crosby (145).
Ramirez, a junior, finished second at state the past two years — losing to a Brandon wrestler in the final each time. Crosby, who finished fifth at state last season, became an AAU All-American over the summer.
Two other Bucs to watch are seniors Maleek Williams (126 pounds) and Demond Richardson (220). Williams finished third at state last season, and Richardson came in fifth at Homestead before deciding to transfer to nearby South Dade.
Veteran Cardinal Gibbons coach Frank Pettineo is among the experts who likes the Bucs’ chances at state.
“I’d give South Dade the edge,” he said. “I don’t think [Aquinas] has enough depth — too many holes in their lineup.”